Thursday, February 18, 2010

Endless Haunting


I was probably in the 9th grade when I became aware of the Viet Nam war. That would make me about 14 years old so it was 1965. We were living in Newport News, Virginia where my father was in the Navy serving as Supervisor of Shipbuilding at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company. This was in the days when the Navy Department still owned the facility. It has been privatized since. Many great naval vessles have come out of there.

Amidst the angst and euphoria of adolescence and puberty, Hullabaloo and Shindig, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Monkees and Ed Sullivan, mini-skirts and go-go boots, there were mind-numbing race riots, anti-war protests and those horrific black and white scenes of the war. We actually "watched" the war on television. The first time this had ever happened. Technology had a sharp edge too.
There were marches against this war in Southeast Asia. The mention of it on the evening news was always prefaced with something like: "And in Viet Nam today...".  Usually it would have to do with the thousands of Viet Cong that the US Forces had killed and captured. It would also report how many Americans had been lost or wounded. Every night. Night after night you would hear the grim statistics. It was so alien and so foreign that the newscasters at first didn't know what to call it. Southeast Asia. Indochina. Vietnam.
Because television in 1965 was still predominantly black and white in most households, the grainy footage of action in Vietnam was tricky. It made me think of a John Wayne movie. Not because of anything other than the fact that the guys were obviously Americans and they were wearing the same types of uniforms, helmets, boots, etc. that those guys did in the movies. It was just NOT real to those of us kids whose peers were about to be the biggest wave of drafted fodder for that war. The guys fighting in 1965 had been born in the latter days of World War II.  And it made a difference, just those few years, because their whole vision of patriotism, war, army, the red, white, and blue, Mom and apple pie and all that stuff still existed and still resonated mightily with many of them. And they went into this hell as born patriots.

It wasn't until the reality that the Greatest Generation, to some Vets, dropped the ball and let the military down throughout the waning days of the war. It has been long believed by many that had the politicians stayed out of the war and let the military do its job, the war would've ended much sooner than it did. And much differently. We will never know. And today's examples of Iraq and Afghanistan are not much changed as far as who is minding the store. On the other hand, many believe that General William Westmoreland, commander of MACV and his "war of attrition" coupled with the "search and destroy" strategy were responsible for failures on the ground and the many deaths of young American soldiers and their Vietnamese counterparts, the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam).

By the time my segment of the Boomer generation came along-born in '50-'52 - we were scrambling. Whether it was by taking heed to the protest songs of Baez, Seeger, Dylan and the rest or physically attending a march or demonstration in front of the City Hall or the Admission Offices of a college or high school-kids were on the march. While some were protesting, others were being drafted. Women were not allowed to go to combat. And that, for me personally, was a good thing. I would've been the perfect age for the draft. I graduated from high school in 1969. But the reality is, not a lot of kids my age were being drafted. You see, I happened to be living in privileged neighborhoods. The Washington, DC suburbs and the Tidewater area of Virginia. Everyone knows now that the Vietnam War, for all intents and purposes, was fought by blue-collar America. By African Americans, Southerners and Urban Northerners and Midwesterners. The children of the wealthy, unless they signed up, pretty much did not get drafted into the military. Please read this great book that gives you a birdseye view of what every kind of person was thinking about Vietnam. "Long Time Passing" by Myra McPherson

Whether to war or for peace we were marching.

Remember, the average age of a soldier in VN was 19. In World War II it was 26. We were kids. We were all just kids.

Nobody EVER in my memory took the time to explain what the Vietnam war was all about and why the American presence was so pivotal. No teachers, not my parents, no one. And still, on the television-now in color-we saw glimpses of this war, one and a half worlds away and still didn't understand it.

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